The Art of Loving

April 10th, 2009

Erich Fromm wrote The Art of Loving in the early fifties. It’s pretty rad. In his section on Love of God, he writes of the the “true kernel” of monotheistic religion, “the logic of which leads exactly to the negation of this concept of God. The truly religious person, if he follows the essence of  the monotheistic idea, does not pray for anything, does not expect anything from God; he does not love God as a child loves his father or her mother; he has acquired the humility of sensing his limitations, to the degree of knowing that he knows nothing about God.”

Cool so far. Fromm continues:

“He has faith in the principles which ‘God’ represents; he thinks turth, lives love and justice, and considers all of his life only valuable inasmuch as it gives him the chance to arrive at an ever fuller unfolding of his human powers—as the only reality that matters, as teh only object of ‘ultimate concern’; and eventually, he does not speak about God—nor even mention his  name. To love God, if he were going to use this word, would mean, then, to long for the attainment of the full capacity to love, for the realization of that which ‘God’ stands for in oneself.”

Right on.

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What I dig about Critical Theory

February 13th, 2009

There’s a reason I’ve always felt an affinity for critical theory. Early on, it was more of an intuition, like right, these folks are really on to something.  Max Horkheimer, of course, is more articulate in his 1937 definition of critical theory as:

1. “a theory dominated at every turn by a concern for reasonable conditions of life;

2. a theory which Condemns exisitng social institutions and practicies as ‘inhuman’;

3. a theory which contemplates the need for ‘an alteration of society as a whole.”

Is it any wonder this is my theoretcial framework, my intellectual orientation and foundation? It just seems so simple, so obvious and so sensible.

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So much for new year’s resolutions

December 28th, 2008

I don’t usually make new year’s resolutions. Nor ny’s reservations for that matter, or any big plans around this fairly arbitrary and thus meaningless date – concept really. I realized from a young age that the resolutions never stick – are a set-up for failure basically – and that the night itself is usually awash in disappointment. At the least it never meets expectations.

But. With me, hope springs eternal, despite the shit and horror of this world. I am the hopeful despondent. And so when Trophycase drew my attention to my horoscope in Free Will Astrology, I gave it a gander. Now, I have written about Rob Breszny’s FWA before … and my assessment remains the same – Leos get the short shrift in his column – despite the odd bone tossed our way. Here’s what Rob wrote about the regal star sign as 2006 drew to a close:

Leo Horoscope for week of December 14, 2006

“Your face alternately contorts with strain and breaks into beatific grins. Your body language careens from garbled jargon to melodic poetry. Your clothes make a fool of you one day and show off your inner beauty the next. Are you becoming bi-polar? Probably not. The more likely explanation is that you’re being convulsed by growing pains that are killing off bad old habits as fast as they’re creating interesting new ones. This is one of those times when you should be proud to wear a badge that says ‘hurts so good.’”

And, you know, I took heart at the idea that people could change. That I could change. Not so much a new year’s resolution but a work in progress. I think that’s more artful and beauty-filled than any finished “piece.” Course, the years flow on, and nothing much does seem to change. Least of all me. And I find myself mired in my own shit all over again, or still. And then up pops another inspiring horoscope from my buddy Rob and I tempted to hope once more:

Leo Horoscope for week of December 18, 2008

“Happy Holy Daze, Leo! If I could give you one gift for the holidays, it might be a magic object to add to your love altar — something like a pomegranate resting on red velvet, or a golden heart-shaped magnet, or Pablo Neruda’s book 100 Love Sonnets. What? You don’t have a love altar? Well then please begin creating one as soon as possible, and continue building it throughout 2009. For the next 12 months, the time will be right to get smarter, wilder, and kinder in your approach to creating intimate connection.”

Sounds pretty awesome, hey? If only I could deliver. Once every year or two Rob Breszny comes through for Leo. Somehow, it feels too little, too late. A bit like me and my “changes.” I recently watched the latest from Harmony Korine, Mister Lonely. The Michael Jackson impersonator is played by the ohsolovely Diego Luna. The expansive Samantha Morton is Marilyn Munroe, who asks Michael whether anything ever changes. He says of course. And she repeats her question with more insistence: But does anything ever really change?”And Michael is stumped. Then Marilyn, true to form, kills herself. It’s a good movie. Go rent it.

My new year’s resolution for 2009 is the same one I set for myself every day, the same one I’ve had since I was about 30: to change myself. To rail against the social constraints and limitations that stripe my being like whip marks. I tell my students at the beginning of each course (whichever one) that the world is a social construction; as it is made daily by our participation in social and physical structures, by our acquiescence to the status quo, so it can be unmade, remade.

But can I remake myself? How to change daily practice that has become second nature? People default to nature as explanation, our animal instincts as some sort of salve that would soothe us, cleanse us, even, from any responsibility for our very conditioned (re)actions. It is tempting, believe me, but not in the spirit of metamorphosis.

Marcuse writes of “second nature” – both of the current capitalist set of values/mores and of the instinctual foundation for liberation:

“Once a specific morality is firmly established as a norm of social behaviour, it is not only introjected – it also operates as a norm of ‘organic’ behaviour the organism receives and reacts to certain stimuli and ‘ignores’ and repels others in accord with the introjected morality, which is thus promoting or impeding the function of the organism as a living cell in the respective society” (Essay on liberation, p. 11).

He further observes that the “so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism” comprise the second nature of human, tying her “libidinally and aggressively to the commodity form.”  The constant need to possess, consume, own that capitalism offers to and imposes upon people has become “biological”in this sense.

“The second nature of (hu)man thus militates against any change that would disrupt and perhaps even abolish this dependence of (hu)man on a market ever more densely filled with merchandise – abolish [her] existence as a consumer consuming [her]self in buying and selling” (ibid). According to Marcuse, the needs created by the capitalist system are stabilizing and conservative – in this way, the counterrevolution becomes instinctive.

Marcuse says that unless the “revolt” – that is revolt against capitalism as a dominative and repressive mode of social organization – descends into this “second” nature, these ingrown patterns, “social change will remain incomplete, even self defeating” (ibid). The radical change needed to transform existing society into a free society therefore must take place within the individual, in the biological dimension, which will then unfurl and extend to social relations and then to social organization itself. For this to occur, according to Marcuse, the “vital, imperative needs and satisfactions of (hu)man” would need to assert themselves. Currently, our “instinctive” needs and satisfactions reproduce our servitude. “[L]iberation presupposes changes in this biological dimension, that is to say, different instincutal needs, different reactions of the body as well as the mind” (p. 17).

The difficulty is changing our instinctive reactions to the social conditioning that has literally ruined us as free, expressive, loving individuals. Intellectually, it isn’t that difficult to observe and analyze the history of humankind, which Marcuse calls the “history of domination and servitude.” But to liberate our scarred, branded, crippled selves from that history is tricky business indeed.

So it’s true: if you want to change the world, you have to change yourself first. And that in itself is a revolution. It might be bloody. And there might not be survivors. But as Spartacus said (just watched for the first time last night), a slave only finds freedom in death. I am speaking metaphorically here, and the conundrum remains: how to be reborn, free of the societal chains that confine and maim, and yet still live in that society?

Sound familiar?

June 10th, 2008

I finished rereading selections of “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” by Marx today. This text features an application of Marx’s materialist conception of history  to actual historical events – those preparing the ground for the coup d’etat of Napoleon III in France.

This tract contains two of Marx’s most famous quotes:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

This showing the role of the individual in history and refuting determinist accusations.

And: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Haha Marx. And no doubt.

But this quote also leaped out at me:

“Society is saved just as often as the circle of its rulers contracts, as a more exclusive interest is maintained against a wider one. Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most shallow democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an ‘attempt on society’ and stigmatized as ’socialism.’”

How often have we heard a similar refrain in contemporary politics or in what passes for political commentary in the mainstream press? Though the above quote was written in 1852 about the ongoing French revolution, it applies to the increasingly conservative political landscape in contemporary Canada. As we are increasingly encouraged to bow to one master only – the god of consumerism – we slowly find our options reducing and our potential moves narrowing. Any inclinations that transgress the edicts of capitalism are sharply rebuked and restrained. As in revolutionary France of the mid-nineteenth century, ideas not bounded by profit and authenticated by minority elite control are called impractical, if not dangerous. Even socialist.

Marx’s prophecy?

June 6th, 2008

I had to laugh when I read this… Marx is too funny! He’s talking about proletarian revolutions but I think it’s an accurate depiction of the Left, post-60s.

“[They] criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, recoil even and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims…”

More people oughta read Marx; it’s profoundly amazing how prescient he was and how relevant he remains.

Week 13 – Wrap it up already

April 1st, 2008

This is the last week in the semester, which has gone by both blurringly fast and painstakingly slow. Ain’t that always the way? The readings for this week are the final chapter in Judy Wajcman’s Technofeminism (2004) as well as the last chapter in Juliet Webster’s Shaping women’s work: Gender, employment and information technology (1995).

Wajcman and Webster are both hardcore scholars. I appreciate so much their rigor, and their steadfastness in the face of those relentless bastions of patriarchy: technology and the academy. Not only are they rock solid, they are the rock stars of feminist constructivist theory, though this may not – at first blush – appear such a sexy thing. Indeed, Wajcman doesn’t even have a page on Wikipedia, despite being a forerunner the field, and Webster seems to have fallen off the academic map completely, though her book had to have been a major contribution.

Wajman concludes her concise yet elegant account of the intersection of feminism and technology studies with her own updated offering. Thus far I had found the book extremely useful and, importantly, accessible to students who, although in fourth year, had had little contact with either academic tradition. In her typically simple yet masterful prose, Wajcman gently introduced them to the various strains of feminism, mapping the field and its evolving challenge to a thoroughly classed and gendered technoscience. By the time she got to cyborgs and cyberfeminism, students were ready and willing to travel with her to the frontiers of cyberspace: virtual reality, the digital divide and disembodied identity.

In her final chapter, Wajcman discusses her addition to the ever-growing body of feminist constructivist theory. She identifies the polarization in social theory between “metaphor and materiality” (the name of this chapter). Wajcman thus retains a materialist analysis, including an unflinching critique of capitalism while pointing of the need to avoid the technological determinism of socialist feminism. She praises Donna Haraway for surpassing the limitations of cyberfeminism, with its tendency toward essentialism, in her attempt to marry socialist and postmodern feminism(s). Remaining thoroughly in the constructivist camp, she says: “An emerging technofeminism conceives of a mutually shaping relationship between gender and technology, in which technology is both a source and a consequence of gender relations” (107).

Wajcman argues that new digital technologies differ in important ways from earlier technologies, as do the social networks in which they are embedded (108). “Whereas the key technologies of the industrial era were largely muscle-enhancing, information technologies are considered to be brain-enhancing” (109). While this prepares the ground for a subversion of sex-stereotyping in the digital era, women continue to be underrepresented among graduates in infotech and computer science (and of course engineering) – and therefore in these fields of employment. Thus Wajcman advises revisiting the liberal feminist program of equal opportunities and equal pay.

Missing from the debate is the fact that the absence of women in technoscience deeply affects how the world is made. The insight of technofeminism? “Every aspect of our lives is touched by sociotechnical systems, and unless women are in the engine-rooms of technological production, we cannot get our hands on the levers of power” (p. 111). We must see technology as a culture that “expresses and consolidates relations amongst men” in order to understand the connection between male power and technoscience (ibid).

Wajcman maintains the negative stereotype, proffered by Turkle (1984), of the hacker, the dominant image of the young, white, male nerd who works 16 hour days in relative isolation (p. 111). “The masculine workplace culture of passionate virtuosity, typified by hacker-style work, epitomizes a world of masterly, individualism and non-sensuality” (ibid). She does not stop there, however, stating that “Being in an intimate relationship with the computer is both a substitute for and a refuge from the much more uncertain and complex relationships that characterize social life” (ibid). Ouch. Now I haven’t done any empirical research on the topic, but the self-identified hackers and geeks that I know are a far sight more socialized than this and while they are predominantly (though not exclusively) male they engage in human relationships and in fact, have a highly developed social conscience. But enough of me and my work.

Importantly, Wajcman defuses the cyber-hype that surrounds the feminist project on the Internet. The appeal of digital virtuality for cyberfeminism is the chance to transcend the dualism of gender. “However, while escaping the corporeal body may be an appealing emancipatory strategy, it leaves untouched the gendered distribution of materials and resources that typically afford women less scope for initiatives in the workplace” (p. 115).

The key to renegotiating the cultural equation between masculinity and technology a technofeminist politics draws attention to the concrete sociotechnical practices of men and women. Women’s emancipation relies upon altering the “woman-machine” relationship to develop women’s capacity vis a vis technical work. It is not cyberspace or digital technologies per se that will grant women their freedom; they are not gender-neutral. In true constructivist form, Wajcman reminds that the Internet, and particularly the www, is flexible and full of contradictory possibility. She also cautions that the digital divide is being purposefully widened by corporate initiatives, such as the “throttling” policy of Bell and Sympatico, which limits their subscribers from downloading certain content and charging more for large bandwidth use. Find out more about the campaign to stop this here.

Wajcman concludes with an affirmation of the “frankly political agenda” of feminist technoscience. Technofeminism takes politics as an a priori feature of a network, “and a feminist politics is a necessary extension of network analysis” (p. 126). She reminds us of the critical observation that science and technology embody dominant (e.g. patriarchal, capitalist) values but that both endeavours have the potential to embody different values. The gig is not up. Indeed, the strength of feminism – and what draws me to it – is that it connects rigorous research and social analysis to a “political practice of making a difference”, to a goal of progressive social transformation (p. 127).

Having some time ago run out of reader indulgence, I will not go into the Webster text in any detail. Suffice it to say, she concludes that computer-based technologies have not had a uniform impact on women’s employment across industry sectors or countries. The benefits have mainly accrued to the employer (shocker). In fact, what she calls an “innovatory technology” has failed to help reduce inequalities between rich and poor countries. Neither has it aided in a restructuring of sexual divisions of labour, as was initially hoped. “The class and gender inequalities of capitalist societies remain in place and these are not threatened by the introduction throughout economies of information technologies.

In fact, Webster argues that information technologies have facilitated the double burden of paid and unpaid work that women carry. Overall, she paints a fairly gloomy picture. She raises – though not hopefully – the strategy of designing “feminist technologies”, grounded in a “rationality of caring” that considers technical design in the context of human health, environmental sustainability and collective security (p. 191). She wonders (and no wonder) about the likelihood of feminist systems design under capitalism, where the owners of capital and their managerial representatives are men, and where the main object is profit and control, not the development of human potential.

However, like Wajcman, Webster reminds us that feminist research into science and technology is an emancipatory project, with political engagement as the priority. It is also an incomplete project, and one that beckons.

When good physicists go postmodern

March 6th, 2008

This interesting tidbit came across one of my lists yesterday. Briefly, it is a spoof article by a physicist submitted – and published - in Social Text, a (then) non-peer-reviewed academic journal of cultural studies. Now, the joke is about 12 years old, but it’s new to me; I find it both hilarious and fascinating.

Hilarious because the perpetrator of the hoax – Alan D. Sokal – has a wicked sense of humour (who knew scientists could be funny?). I mean, the title alone is worth the entire gag: Transgressing the boundaries – Toward a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity. An excerpt:

“It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality’, no less than social ‘reality’, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific ‘knowledge’, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.”

What a hoot! It reminds me of Rick Gruneau’s infamous quip about “theory that only dogs can hear.” But, funnily enough, everything but the first bit is stuff I’ve been grappling with lately, and stuff others – Thomas Kuhn, David Bloor and Sandra Harding come to mind – have convincingly written on without casting doubt on the existence of reality or the importance of science.

And fascinating for a couple reasons. First, because of the hypothesis Sokal was testing: namely, that the standards of intellectual rigor in certain precincts of the American academic humanities were on the decline. Second, because he misinterprets (or misunderstands) the very thing he is attempting to parody. Now that’s funny, no?

It’s true – and those of you who know me know this – I am no expert in cultural studies or postmodernism (or pomo, as I irreverently shorthand it). Indeed I was raised (in the academic sense) not by wolves but by professors who became wolf-like at the mere mention of postmodernism. So it is the case that I might not know what I’m talking about. Someone like Gary McCarron or Andrew Feenberg would be much better suited to the task, but I’m going to give it a shot nonetheless.

In an article about the whole sordid affair (submitted to though not published by Social Text), Sokal explains his motivation for writing the initial article, and goes on to highlight some of his more outrageous claims (whoppers, really), presented without supporting evidence or even logical argumentation. He really nails the pomo navelgazers – the type who only communicate through “discourses” and regard the world not as a tabula rasa or palette but as a text. The type for whom everything is a construct of one sort or another that nevertheless must be deconstructed. The type that make Foucault, Derrida and the rest of those cats roll over in their graves. I laughed out loud at the caricature.

Sokal peppers his article with scientific and mathematical concepts deployed “in ways that few scientists or mathematicians could possibly take seriously” drawing conclusions that were “pure invention.” And the editors and reviewers ate it up. Brilliant, as is his proposal that the “axiom of equality in mathematical set theory is somehow analogous to the homonymous concept in feminist politics.” According to Sokal, he wrote the thing so that “any competent physicist or mathematician (or undergraduate physics or math major)” would get the joke. But not the eds of Social Text, who apparently were fine with publishing an article on quantum physics without having it vetted by a scientist.

By his own admission, Sokal is at his most ridciulous in his conclusion:

“Having abolished reality as a constraint on science, I go on to suggest (once again without argument) that science, in order to be ‘liberatory’ must be subordinated to political strategies. I finish the article by observing that ‘a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics.’”

Outrageous. Sure. OK. But I think that Sokal does not land the powerful blow he aims to by ridiculing worthy projects, that are in many instances thoughtfully and solidly theorized, along with the clearly outlandish. I find that throughout, Sokal mixes his metaphors, borrowing when it suits him from modernism to describe its (so-called) successor. Dialectics, from what I know, is painfully Marxian and thus embarassingly modern. And the notion that science must be subordinated to a political agenda – not a pomo recommendation but a contemporary critical accusation. And last I checked, pomo theorists – at least the type Sokal lampoons – are not engaged in any project of societal change, rendering the quest for a “concrete tool of progressive political praxis” unnecessary. Indeed, praxis is a thoroughly modernist concept.

I take Sokal’s point – I do. The lack of rigour, the tendency of journal editors to indulge their particular theoretical predilections, well, these have long been suspected by academics in the social sciences. This is hardly shocking for a system (academic journal publishing) that relies on free labour (and in some cases charges authors to publish their work!!) and whose output has exploded in the last two decades. Some of the major corporate publishers have hundreds of titles on their rosters. They continue to jack subscription fees while quality plummets and libraries are forced to reduce their journal holdings. Give me a break.

But accepting Sokal’s point with humility does not mean accepting the undertone of his essay, which appears to me to be a defensive and unnuanced reaction to any and all critiques of scientific knowledge, and the discipline of science broadly construed. So when he writes in his parody about trying to highlight the “philosophical and political implications” in the theory of quantum gravity, we are meant – once in on the joke – to see this task as farcical, and not only the fictitious theory.

But, in fact, this is a very important task. If Sokal wants to cling to an antiquated and blind faith in a positivistic and value-free science, he is by all means welcome. And I can’t say for certain that is his position, because I haven’t read all the fallout literature on the subject, nor even browsed the intriguing but alarm-bell raising book titled A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science (featuring Sokal). But I think it is disingenuous to shroud what appears to be an ideological sortie in a lampoon of a critique he neither fully understands nor fairly addresses.

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